Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
The two have united this year to produce the annual spring Costume Institute exhibit and its corresponding over-the-top event, the red carpet blowout known as the Met Gala. The exhibit, "Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology," loosely covers the intersection of both industries. What a marriage.
For those unfamiliar with all this, the Met Gala is the fundraiser for the Costume Institute, a department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Thanks to co-chair Anna Wintour (Vogue's EIC and Condé Nast's artistic director), it has scaled dramatically in recent years, from an industry event to the world's biggest party filled with the most famous celebrities and prominent fashion designers (also some extremely, extremely wealthy and relevant donors). It even has its own documentary now, The First Monday in May, which recaps the making of 2015's show, "China: Through the Looking Glass."
This year's benefit — taking place Monday, May 2nd, as the doc title suggests — is co-chaired by Taylor Swift. There is nobody who would make a better ring bearer: Swift is the face of both Apple Music and Vogue's March 2016 issue. Nothing is an accident.
This partnership serves a number of purposes for both parties, but most notably, it helps fill in the gaps where the titanic brands are beginning to show their weaknesses. Vogue is struggling in a fashion media landscape that has become crowded and moves fast. Its digital efforts came late, and its online content doesn't match up to the elevated, polished precedent set by the magazine. Apple lost its legendary leader, Steve Jobs, in 2011 and hasn't brought to market anything truly game-changing since. New categories like self-driving cars and VR may be young and relatively untested, but Apple is, for the first time, competing on a level playing field with companies like Google and Facebook to make the next true tech-design breakthrough.
These two powerhouses still have incredible caché, and the theory goes that the presence of one can bolster the other. When Apple sought to position its Watch (its first new product line since the iPad in 2010) as more than just a piece of technology, but rather an accessory and a fashionable one at that, it beelined straight for Vogue. "Manus x Machina" is an extension of this: a splashy cultural event that seeks to make Apple look luxe and sexy, and Vogue connected and in touch.
How We Got Here
The exhibit is by no means Apple and Vogue's first dance. Vogue has been an integral part of Apple's messaging around its Watch from the very beginning.
What’s the Deal With Apple?
The Met Gala comes at a time when Apple's design prowess is being called into question. Just a few years ago, the tech company's ability to turn heads with clean lines, luxurious materials, and an overall commitment to innovation was practically beyond reproach. These days, though, not so much. Derivative products like the newly-released iPhone SE left some observers wondering why new internals in an old phone deserve the fanfare usually reserved for more groundbreaking devices.
Meanwhile, other products have just been disappointing. The company's Smart Battery Case, for instance, is ugly and underpowered, baffling reviewers and consumers alike. Users still wonder why they need to turn their Magic Mouse 2s upside down to charge them.
And then there's the Apple Watch. Apple leapt confidently into the fashion world with the Watch last year, and earned recognition for producing a smartwatch that has arguably the greatest potential in its category, but the device still falls short of the design standards the company has set for itself.
The watch face is a hair too thick, and the interface is cluttered and unfocused. As a fashion accessory, it lacks the aura and timelessness of a Rolex or Tag Heuer, partially because you'll inevitably need to replace it. In the end, it's telling that a show as culturally relevant as Last Week Tonight with John Oliver skewered the Watch; when one hapless early adopter asked if the Watch was cool, Oliver's helpful announcer replied, "Oh, fuck no!"
And How About Vogue?
Vogue has long been a holdout when it comes technology, a fact most obvious when you look to its website. Vogue.com didn't exist until November 2009; prior to that, Style.com (rest in peace) served as the communal digital home for both Vogue and fellow Condé fashion mag W.
Timed to the September fashion shows in 2010, Vogue.com got a big, expensive makeover. "We've been given all the resources that we need," Caroline Palmer, then editor of Vogue.com, told WWD. "It's about time," the trade publication (which shared a parent company with Condé Nast at the time) wrote. "The world's most influential fashion magazine is late to the online game."
Anna Wintour explained she "felt it was crucial that in this era we take the authority, quality, and beauty of Vogue and bring those values to the digital realm," citing the reader's engagement with technology, and the increasing pace of fashion. "Everyone here at the magazine wants to be able to bring it to the Vogue reader on an hourly, not just monthly, basis." On an almost fearful note, she added, "There is just so much — too much, almost — out there on the web." The new site wouldn't try to tackle it all, though. "Vogue.com isn't going to be covering everything — just the right things."
What's on the site these days? The fashion editorials and profiles that run in the magazine, as well as runway slideshows and reviews that have migrated from Style.com, but the meat and potatoes of the digital content is generic celebrity coverage that could appear anywhere: How Kendall Jenner Turns an Off-Duty Hair Signature Into a Subversively Sexy Statement, The Best Fashion Instagrams of the Week: Bella Hadid and Rihanna Get Leggy!, Karlie Kloss's Secret Weapon for Looking Cool at School.
It's not just any celebrities that get coverage, though, it's an endless cycle of the same names: top models (see: Kloss), reality stars-turned-models (see: Jenner and the Hadid sisters), and cover star hall of famers (see: Rihanna and Met Gala host Taylor Swift). The common thread that ties these women together is an influential presence on social media. In the way Vogue is trying to absorb tech cred by aligning with Apple, it wants "The Instagirls!" (as the September 2014 cover declared them) to win them a digital following.
Vogue's latest stab at digital is a mobile app, launched Thursday, April 28, days before the Met Gala. "Apple's sponsoring of the Met Gala was a gift," Vogue.com creative director Sally Singer told Digiday, explaining that the event gave the app's launch "a hard deadline." Mobile analyst Cathy Boyle criticized the timing, saying "they're behind the curve of the market. It's crowded, but it's very Vogue to sit on the sidelines and study, and wait ‘til they feel ready."
Publishers aren't releasing new apps at the rate they used to, with many not releasing apps at all, relying instead on responsive mobile sites and off-platform distribution. A 2014 ComScore report noted a surge in app usage, but a halt in new app downloads. The headline-worthy takeaway? Most mobile users download zero apps per month. As Digiday's Hilary Milnes wrote of the app announcement, "Vogue is not known as a digital trailblazer."
The design missteps at Apple and the web troubles at Vogue are fascinatingly parallel. Apple is poised to lose its footing as the world's most design-focused tech company as its Steve Jobs-sized hole ceases to be filled. The market is now flooded with nice-looking phones, tablets, computers, and smartwatches from many, many other makers. It needs, desperately, design edge and fashion clout, which is what it hopes to achieve with its ongoing partnership with Vogue — but really, the change needs to come from the inside.
Vogue is in danger of damaging its prestigious reputation with diluted web content — content that reaches more people than its print product each month. It needs to throw some real, quality weight behind its digital strategy, or risk leaning on the Kardashians' rabid fanbase for traffic indefinitely. The "Buzzfeedification of Vogue" is not a good look, and Apple's multi-tiered ad buys aren't enough to earn them true tech points.
Yes, Apple and Vogue are a hot couple, and they're going to throw a killer party Monday night when Beyoncé, Sarah Jessica Parker, Amal Clooney, and all the rest parade through in what will be undeniably exquisite clothes. But they can't rely on one another to make up for what they lack. As companies, as brands, as identities, they need to be able to stand on their own.